Friday, September 07, 2012

The word "lady," part one


Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in the Midwest who uses the words "woman" and "women" instead of "lady" and "ladies." Am I the only one who learned during the 1980s that "lady" is euphemistic and sexist?

Historically, the terms "lady" and "gentleman" connoted a standard of social behavior and social standing. A “lady,” in particular, was supposed to be modest, pure, clean, asexual, etc. But we don't use the word “gentlemen” in our daily speech. We use “men,” which is a straight-forward, free, unmarked, unsentimental word. Why didn’t the U.S. make a similar shift to the word “women?”

I believe it's because Americans don’t like to think of our females as free and unsentimental. A man can be any kind of man, but we prefer a woman to "act like a lady," with certain expectations of dress and behavior. Using the word “ladies” when we’re not using the equivalent term “gentlemen” reflects our sexist double standard of behavior. I'm a woman, unmarked and free, but each time someone refers to me as a "lady" I feel hemmed in by expectations of ladylike behavior: for example "ladies" don't use cuss words, sit with their knees apart, burp in public or make their sexual desires clear. None of those protocols appeal to me, so please don't bother calling me a "lady."

But if you're one of those people who only feels comfortable calling women “ladies, ” then at least be consistent about also calling men “gentlemen.” Belief in equality is reflected in using equal terms for females and males, such as talking about "men and women," or “girls and boys,” if everyone’s under the age of 18 (referring to women as "girls" when we don't call men "boys" is also hypocritical and offensive).

My Midwestern friends are bewildered by these views. They think "ladies" is a perfectly innocent word that's respectful and polite. I'm the odd one out on this one, probably because I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. But I can't control my emotional reaction to being called a "lady" when I know "ladylike" conduct does not reflect who I am. And it's especially hard for me to hear the terms "men" and "ladies" used as if they're equivalent.

I'm a woman: strong, equal to men and not afraid to be "impolite." If we're not using the word "gentlemen" with equal frequency, I don't see a good reason to use the heavily marked, socially restrictive word "ladies." Now please click here: The word "lady," part two.

11 comments:

Mick said...

Although I agree the term Lady or Ladies is used more often than the term Gentlemen I think the big difference is that "Men" or "Man" is just a shortened version of GentleMEN or GentleMAN.
Bit like calling you Reg instead of Regina or me Mick/Mike instead of Michael.
Women and Ladies are completely different names.

Trying to think of where the term "Ladies & Gentlemen" is used nowadays and can think of two.
When somebody is at the start of a speech (wedding, dinner, sporting event, etc) and also quite often the words can be found on toilets (rest rooms).

Jessica Young said...

You're not the only person with a problem with the word "Lady". I was just saying the other day that when some women choose to pause their yoga practice during menstruation, the time is condescendingly known as "Ladies' Holiday." Blech.

As much as I dislike the term, I find myself using it, especially on a single-sex group of younger women, like my students. I'm not a fan, but it still finds its way into my vocab. Just as bad to me is the use of the term "guys" to refer to a group of men and women. I do this all the time, and every time "guys" comes out of my mouth and I'm not talking about just men, I wince. Important to consider the way sexism works its way into our everyday language.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Mick - actually Americans often label restrooms "Ladies" and "Men." It makes me wince every time. Ugh!

Jess - "Ladies' Holiday" is funny! Why would you halt yoga for your period?

Yes, "you guys" is also problematic, but it doesn't evoke the emotional response in me that "ladies" does, I don't know why. I try to avoid using the term "you guys" to refer to mixed groups and instead use "you all," maybe because I'm the daughter of Texans. It's hard to stop myself from saying "you guys," but in email I definitely use "you all" and never "you guys."

Why do you use the word "ladies" if you don't like it?

Ana Arellano said...

And I wonder about Spanish. I am unfamiliar enough with the niceties of Spanish to know when (or why) one would use "dama" instead of "mujer," and I know I hear "dama" way more than "caballero," (which I think is the equivalent to gentleman, yet it also means knight). Caballero sounds kind of stuffier to me than gentleman. And this does not even take into account the usage in the 20 or so Spanish speaking countries.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Ana, yes, "caballero" sounds ancient and I don't know when one would use it. English words carry a lot more emotional resonance for me than Spanish, but I'm sure I'd get tired of "damas" pretty quickly if I lived in a Spanish-dominant country.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to come acrss this post. I am trying to explain to a student why I prefer his emails to me and a fellow tutor were not addresed as 'Hello Ladies '. My justification ended up as something like yours, that is, I was bought up in the 80's and it was seen by my contemporaries as demeaning and that it impies an associated set of characteristics quite different to what I am ;)
But I also empathise with you Jessica in that I sometimes find myself saying to my younger women students 'Hi Ladies' and then cringing thinking 'why did I just say that?? I am trying to move towards using the term 'Folk' as I find this quite a freindly and possibly gender neutral term as in 'Hi Folks'. Untill someone tells me otherwise...
Regards
nicky

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Anonymous - "Folks" is nice and neutral. I use "you all." I'm glad you liked the post and found it helpful. It's a very tough argument to make in the Midwest. It's like the word "woman" doesn't even exist out here.

margaretanngrant said...

Oh this word crawls under my skin and makes me seethe. I cannot stay silent if someone tries to call me a lady. Gag!! It's true that many women do not seem bothered by it which I really don't get. You have described exactly why it is so objectionable - thank you!

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

margaretanngrant - Thanks for the comment. American Midwesterners are invariably surprised when I express my distaste for the word. It's as if the word "woman" is considered insulting. I'll probably never understand these people (and vice versa).

Elizabeth HandToPlow said...

Loathe the word "lady." I've taught for 20 years (public middle schools). I *never* use the word "ladies" or "young ladies." If the need arises, I say "young women" (or sometimes "women"). Very often in the hallways, I go gender-free by using "young one" (or ;) if I need someone's attention, "little one.) Thank you, Ms. Rodriguez-Martin, for this post. "Lady" has *far* too many societal prescriptions/proscriptions-- irrespective of the argument that those "-tions" have diminished over time. Peace, M. Elizabeth Parker

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Elizabeth, thank you for finding substitutes for "ladies" and "young ladies," especially since you work in a public school. I'm enouraged by comments like yours because they show me that I'm not alone on this one. Most people think I'm crazy to have a problem with a word that they think is so respectful and poite. Double standards are insidious. But I'm afraid we're losing this battle. "Lady" is used instead of "woman" increasingly in news stories, article headlines and the most objective discussions. Even Jezebel, that bastion of strong feminism, has gravitated towards using "lady" each time they could use "woman." I despair.